Iran successfully placed a satellite in orbit June 15, demonstrating increasing proficiency with rocket technology that could also be used in its ballistic missile programs. The move, which marks Tehran’s second successful satellite launch, appears to violate UN sanctions prohibiting Iran from taking any actions related to ballistic missiles.
Iran launched the satellite aboard a two-stage rocket called the Safir-1B, a variant of the Safir-2 system Iran used in February 2009 for its first successful launch. Tehran failed in its first launch attempt, in August 2008. Before that, Iran relied on Russia to place its satellites in orbit. Moscow announced last July that it would no longer launch Iranian satellites.
Iran’s official Press TV announced June 16 that the Safir had placed in orbit an imaging satellite named Rasad (“Observation” in Farsi), which is intended to circle the earth 15 times a day for two months. The Rasad will be used for topography missions and high-resolution mapping, Iran’s official Tehran Times newspaper said June 18.
Technical experts said that although Iran did not demonstrate any significant advances in its rocket capabilities with the second successful launch of the Safir, the reuse of the system shows that Iran pursues its rocket and missile development in a methodical and sophisticated way. “I am impressed that they have launched a second satellite with the same vehicle,” former UN weapons inspector Geoffrey Forden said in a June 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today. “This is what a systematic missile development program would do,” he added.
Uzi Rubin, former head of the Israeli Missile Defense Organization, also noted in a June 21 e-mail that the 29-month span between Iran’s first and second successful launches “is relatively brief, indicating that the Iranians are pouring money into the program.” Iran has announced that it intends to carry out additional satellite launches over the next year and is planning its first manned space flight in 2019.
Iran’s ambitious space program does appear to have met with delays. In March 2010, Iranian officials said the Rasad would be launched in August 2010, later moving the launch to Feb. 11, the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, before finally carrying it out last month.
The Safir launch appears to be a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1929, adopted in June 2010, which bars Iran from carrying out “any activity” related to nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, “including launches using ballistic missile technology.” Many of the technologies used in space launch vehicles are also important for ballistic missiles. A 2009 U.S. Air Force intelligence assessment of ballistic and cruise missile threats said that the Safir could be used as a test bed for ballistic missile technologies.
A State Department official told Arms Control Today June 24 that the United States intends to bring the violation to the attention of the Security Council’s Iran sanctions committee.
Still, the technical experts noted that the Safir is designed as a space launch vehicle rather than a military system, with a lightweight frame and a slow rate of acceleration, and would need to undergo extensive modifications to be used as a missile.
The Safir also is designed to carry only a small payload. The Rasad weighed just slightly more than 15 kilograms, while Iran’s first satellite weighed about twice as much. Nuclear-capable missiles are generally assumed to be able to carry a payload of at least 500 kilograms.
Michael Elleman, a senior fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain and a former UN weapons inspector, said in a June 19 interview that if the Safir were modified to be used as a ballistic missile, it could potentially carry a 700- to 800-kilogram warhead between 2,000 and 2,400 kilometers. Although such a system would be able to reach possible targets in the region, including Israel, Iran has already successfully tested more capable ballistic missiles that can achieve such ranges.
The 2009 Air Force intelligence assessment said that the Safir could potentially be converted to a missile with a range of more than 3,000 kilometers, but it is unclear what the payload of such a system might be.
Last February, Iran unveiled a larger and more capable space launch vehicle named the Simorgh (“Phoenix” in Farsi), which Iranian officials said was designed to launch heavier satellites and would see its first flight in February 2011.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the House Armed Services Committee March 10 that the Simorgh design “could be used for an ICBM-class vehicle,” referring to intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The technical experts pointed out that Iran unveiled only a mock-up of the system, which may not be ready to launch for some time. “It was very obvious to me at the time that its first flight was still years away,” Rubin said.
Elleman said a number of additional factors could have contributed to delays in the scheduled launch of the Simorgh, including preparations for satellites the Simorgh is designed to carry and the construction of a launch facility appropriate for the system. “It would be quite difficult to launch the Simorgh from existing pads,” he said.
The Simorgh is similar in design to a North Korean rocket launched in May 2009, called the Unha-2, and both systems use a cluster of four North Korean Nodong missiles in their first-stage boosters. (See ACT, June 2009.)
In addition to its satellite launch, Iran appears to be continuing to test its ballistic missiles, although in a far less public manner than it has previously. According to a UN report assessing sanctions against Iran, Tehran carried out two unannounced tests of one of its most advanced missiles, the two-stage, solid-fuel Sajjil-2, in October 2010 and last January. (See ACT, June 2011.) The report, which has yet to be released and was written by a panel of experts appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said the panel was informed by another country of the unannounced Sajjil-2 tests.
Iran’s silence regarding the tests contrasts with its previous practice, when it actively publicized its missile tests, often including video footage and press briefings by senior officials.
The experts said the reasons behind such a shift were unclear. Rubin suggested that the UN prohibitions imposed last June were not likely a key consideration behind the change in behavior. “It would be more characteristic of them to flaunt the tests in the face of the [resolution] than hiding them,” he said.
He noted that one factor may be current disagreements between the United States and Russia regarding the U.S. deployment of a missile defense system in Europe, aimed primarily at defending against Iranian missiles. Moscow has argued that the missile defense plans are unnecessary and that Iranian missiles do not pose a threat to Europe. Because the Sajjil-2 places parts of Europe within range, testing such systems “would throw a monkey wrench into the Russians’ logic and make them look a bit ridiculous,” he said.
Iran’s ambassador to Romania, Aminian Jazi, recently denied that his country’s missiles were a threat to Europe, claiming that they were purely defensive in nature. Agence France-Presse reported June 20 that Jazi told a Romanian news Web site, “We believe the anti-missile shield is not aimed at us” but rather at Russia.
A June 20 Romanian Foreign Ministry press release said that Jazi had been summoned to explain his remarks, which Bucharest said “are not constructive.”